SURE: Helping Rural Women Become Entrepreneurs & Promoting Energy-Efficient Products

It’s unique. It’s for women. And it’s rural. Enough reasons for all of us to be proud of initiatives like Sakhi Unique Rural Enterprise (SURE) – a rural distribution and marketing company working with rural women entrepreneurs (sakhis) and markets clean green products like improved cook stove, solar lantern, biogas, solar water heaters etc. The organization’s CEO Upmanyu Patil shares his views here.

It was in January 2009 that the idea of Sakhi Retail was incorporated by Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP). SSP is a Mumbai-based organization that strives to train and develop women in rural and grassroots areas so that they can be self-reliant and use their talent in some work. The organization also caters to the learning and development needs of the youth. The CEO of Sakhi Unique Retail Enterprise or Sakhi Retail (as it is called now) Upmanyu Patil shares with us about this amazing initiative.

“Sakhi Unique Rural Enterprise was formed with an aim to improve the health and well-being of Indian rural households by distributing high-quality, affordable goods and appliances where they are least accessible. SURE aims to make rural women entrepreneurs with excellent door-to-door selling techniques so that they can earn commission-based income and enjoy significant commission-based income too. Promoting and marketing green products is one of the main focus of SURE.”

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What started as a small organization of few hundred women now reaches over 500,000 families in five districts of India; Latur, Osmanabad, Beed and Nanded, in the Maharashtra region and Solapur in Western Maharashtra. Upmanyu Patil details,

“It actually was the Oorja Stove, a smokeless biomass stove which used pellets (produced from a mush of corn cobs, coffee beans and sugar cane crush) as fuel, that led to the birth of Sakhi Retail. Since the target market for the Oorja stove was the millions of rural households using wood burning stoves, SSP thought of creating a rural distribution and marketing channel which would serve both the purposes – promote energy-efficient products in rural areas and train rural women to be entrepreneurs along with.”

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So was the idea as effective in actuality as it is sounding here? Or were there any initial difficulties that posed problem in involving rural women?

“Any idea/project related to women and that too in rural areas is never easy to implement! But because SURE aimed at empowering rural women by giving them livelihood opportunities by creating a supply chain of clean energy products; we were able to herald new dawns. SURE has always been very effective in rural context as it makes available eco-friendly and green products and services in non accessible areas. Till date, we have given livelihood opportunity to more than 800 women in rural Maharashtra and have reached across 1 lac households. We have been finalists in many awards and competition and also won the Sankalp–Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves Award for Innovation in Clean Cooking Solutions and received a cash grant of USD 15,000 along with the opportunity to be considered for the Alliance’s Spark Fund.”

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Indeed, the award and recognition highlights the good work done by Sakhi Retail. This initiative has impacted on the society on three levels –

  1. At the micro level or at the consumer level – Now, even the rural areas have been able to avail the benefits of products like clean cook stove, solar lantern, water purifiers etc which will benefit their health and cause transformation towards a healthy and improved lifestyle leading to modernization of rural areas in positive terms.
  2. At the macro level or at the level of National Income – SURE aims to create livelihood opportunities for rural women which are called as the Sakhi under this programme. These Sakhis have been trained in entrepreneurship, sales and marketing by Sakhi Social Enterprise Network – the training arm of Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP).
  3. At the ecological level – Because SURE promotes only clean and green products; it leads to saving of energy, resources and time leading to reduction in the operations cost in the long run.

“The success of SURE has been shaped by the parent organization SSP which has also been awarded USAID fund for scaling up similar approach in Maharashtra and Bihar to create 1000 women entrepreneurs in next 3 years. SSP has been working on non-profit model and has been getting funds from philanthropists, Governement and corporate sector. However, SURE works on revenue model and is working for profits. SURE generates monthly revenue of 20 lakhs INR on regular basis. The commission from manufacturers is in the 20-40% ratio which is split between the Sakhis (60 paise) and Sakhi Retail (40 paise).”

Upmanyu also talked about the future goals for SURE. He candidly expressed the ambition of expanding to five states by the end of 2020 having a network of around 10000 women entrepreneurs and reaching in at least two million rural households.

“There is a great potential and opportunity in India to tap the rural markets and introduce energy-efficient products through women entrepreneurs. SURE has played an instrumental role in marketing innovative and socially-beneficial products such as Unilever’s Pureit and Godrej’s ChotuKool (innovative low-cost water purifier and refrigeration products targeted at BOP households), solar lanterns from D.Light, organic fertilizers, cattle feed supplement, and the Reuters Market Light SMS information service for farmers.”

It indeed is a wonderful way to make rural women independent financially as well as socially. We wish to see many more such organizations operating in other parts of India too!

This post was first published on Halabol Voices, which is an initiative of Halabol – a platform for initiating change.

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